After he made love to his wife, Pearse lay on his back and waited until he could hear her steady breathing. When he was sure she was asleep he checked the time. The illuminated numbers on the digital clock glowed in the dark bedroom. It was midnight. He slipped out of bed and carefully put on his clothes, trying not to wake her. As he was leaving the room she said, “Where are you going, dear?”
“Out for cigarettes,” he said. “Go back to sleep.”
“You don’t need to smoke now,” she said. “Come back to bed.”
“I’ll only be a minute,” he said. “Sleep.”
Pearse left his apartment on the Upper West Side and took a taxi across town to see his mistress. Since they worked together he usually saw her at lunch. But the next morning Centrex Corporation was sending him on a two-week Manager’s Retreat at the Banstock mansion in the Adirondacks. He had never been away from his mistress for more than a weekend, and he wanted to see her before he left. This was Pearse’s first affair. He had never mixed work with romance before. The combination made his life more exciting than it had ever been with his wife, so much so that Pearse thought he might be in love with his mistress — really in love. He wanted to know.
When Pearse returned home at four in the morning his wife was sitting up in bed reading. He had forgotten the cigarettes. “Damn,” he said.
“Who is she?” she said. She took a Kleenex from the carton on her lap and blew her nose.
Pearse knelt down on the floor next to the bed. “Have you been crying all this time?” he said. “I never would have dreamed—”
“She must not be going on the retreat if you felt compelled to go over there now,” she said.
Pearse had no idea what to say. He had never seen his wife look so lost. When the boys were born, and she became withdrawn and listless, he had felt some resentment smoldering in her. But now it seemed she had no recourse. It was as if someone close to her had died. He took her hand; it was ice cold. “Darling,” he said.
The managers at the retreat were all from different companies; none of them knew each other. It was an intense two weeks however, and they got to know each other almost instantly. It was as if they had to fit in as much confession and intrigue as they could, before they returned to their families.
Pearse was friendly but tried to remain aloof. He was still shaken by his wife’s grief and didn’t want to complicate his guilt with another betrayal. Everyone else was sleeping together though, and he felt left out. He found a woman named Vanessa attractive, so he was relieved when an older man named Jason pursued her.
One evening in the middle of the first week, Pearse went out drinking with Vanessa, Daniel and Rana, at a bar in the little resort town closest to the Banstock mansion. Evelyn and Edward didn’t come; they were spending all their time alone. Daniel and Rana had obviously been sleeping together, which left Pearse with Vanessa. As much as he liked her, Pearse felt uncomfortable being paired with her. He thought she would bring Jason, but the older man didn’t come.
Daniel and Rana sat on one side of the table, Pearse and Vanessa on the other. Vanessa was shivering in her thin blouse, so Pearse offered her his tweed jacket. She put it on. Now it will smell like her and haunt me, he thought. But she began to talk about Jason.
“I need your advice,” she told the three of them. “Jason is really pressuring me to have an affair. I don’t know what to do.”
“Whatever you do,” Pearse said, “don’t tell your husband. And don’t get caught.” He didn’t want to pretend he had morals, but he didn’t want to encourage her. He figured this response was the best compromise.
The cocktail waitress came and they ordered the specialty of the house: Bloody Marys in quart canning jars garnished with a celery stalk. “I’d have to tell my husband,” Vanessa said. “Our only rule is total honesty.”
Pearse winced. She was so young. “Then why do it at all?” Daniel said. “If that’s your policy it must be a healthy marriage.” Daniel was bored with his wife so he had slept with Rana. What was one more betrayal? Now he was disgusted with himself.
“Jason’s been around,” Vanessa said. “I could learn from him. But he won’t get close to me unless we go to bed. He says I’m a tease. I want the emotional intimacy but I don’t want to hurt my husband.”
Pearse watched Vanessa chew the leaves off her celery stalk and search their faces for a response. She was so ingenuous. “Jason’s a desperate character,” Daniel said. “His third marriage is on the rocks. If you do it, make sure he understands you’re not serious. It’s your responsibility not to hurt him.”
“Listen to all of you,” Rana said. She put her drink down and shifted impatiently in her chair. “Hurting your husband, hurting Jason. What about your hurt? I say do what you want to do.”
“Jason won’t do what I want,” Vanessa said.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell your husband,” Pearse repeated. He twirled his celery stalk in his drink, rattling the ice.
“You just got caught, didn’t you,” Rana said smartly.
Pearse nodded. “Well what’s your arrangement?” he said. He knew she slept with everyone. He couldn’t be the only one whose marriage was a wreck.
“We do what we want,” Rana said.
“And you’re happy?” Vanessa said, amazed.
“No,” Rana said. She pulled the celery stalk out of her drink and sucked out the alcohol.
“What do you do?” Pearse asked Daniel. He felt absurd, like he was taking a survey. But now that they were all talking about it, he figured, What the hell.
“My wife and I keep each other honest,” Daniel said. He added, “When we get bored we fool around.” He winked.
“And does that work?” Vanessa asked.
“Not really,” Daniel admitted.
“If only we didn’t want more than we have,” Vanessa said, hugging herself in Pearse’s jacket.
“What a mess,” Pearse said. He hadn’t suspected things were this bad.
Pearse sat down in the phone booth in the lobby of the Banstock mansion. The booth lit up when he wedged the door shut. He preferred to talk to his wife in the dark, but the booth would not be soundproof with the door ajar. He settled for a bright privacy. Life was a series of disappointing compromises, he thought as he dialed his own number. There was no possibility for innocence, no pure feeling.
Pearse’s oldest son Alex answered the phone. He was a grown-up five. “Daddy,” he said, “did you go away because I ran into your study Tuesday night when you were trying to work?”
“No,” Pearse said. “It’s a business trip. It has nothing to do with you.”
“Don’t lie,” Alex said. “You can tell me.”
“Alex, don’t make things up,” Pearse said gently. “I’ll tell you when something’s wrong. Has your mother been nice?”
“Nicer than usual,” Alex said. “I think she feels bad ’cause you’re mad at me.”
“I told you I’m not mad,” Pearse said. “Would you call your mother to the phone?” Pearse could hear Alex telling her, Daddy’s not mad at me for running into the study. It was a rule: Don’t bother your dad when he’s working.
“Hello?” his wife said. Her voice was so stiff it made Pearse feel like an insurance salesman.
“I’m going to tell you the truth,” he said gravely.
“I’m listening,” she said.
“I’m not going to see her anymore,” he said. “It’s over.” Sure, he and his mistress had work in common. This excited him, and he had never been excited by his wife. But he had been through hell with his wife. He couldn’t hurt her. He didn’t want to lose her.
“Have you told her yet?” his wife said.
“She’s not here,” he said. “Don’t you think I should tell her in person?”
“I don’t know,” his wife said.
“I’ll call her right now then,” Pearse said. “Whatever you want.” He sensed he had lost his advantage.
“I don’t mean that,” she said. “I’ve been having a good time here alone, since you’ve been gone. I’m surprised. I like being independent. I like the children.”
“So what do you mean?” Pearse said. “You don’t want me to break it off with her?”
“You damn well better break it off with her,” she said. “Or I’m not letting you back into this apartment.”
“Then what do you mean, ‘I don’t know’,” he said.
“I mean I might divorce you anyway,” she said.
On the last night of the retreat they had a party. In the living room Vanessa sat in the large upholstered chair and Evelyn sat beside her, half on the arm of the chair, half in Vanessa’s lap. They had their arms around each other. Edward sat opposite them on the velvet couch, smoking his pipe and watching. The others were in the back of the room.
“Have you ever slept with a woman” Evelyn asked Vanessa.
“Why no,” Vanessa said, astonished. “Have you?”
“No,” Evelyn said. “But after all this,” she waved her hand around the room at the others, “we might try it,” she said, brushing the hair out of Vanessa’s eyes.
“It’s an idea,” Vanessa conceded.
Edward nodded his approval. “I could put you up in a loft in the Financial District where you wouldn’t be bothered,” he said.
“Would you come visit?” Vanessa said.
“Of course,” Edward and Evelyn said in unison. They all buckled over laughing.
In the back of the room, Jason was holding forth on de Kooning. He had an oversized art book cracked open across his legs; Pearse and Daniel sat beside him on the floor. Jason leaned his back up against the swooning couch where Rana was lying down, and she swung her arm over his shoulder. While he talked she stroked his collar and ear with one of her long fingernails. Daniel passed a joint among them. When Jason had his lungs full of smoke, he got up on his knees, bent over Rana, and blew the smoke into her mouth. Pearse and Daniel watched them kiss, Jason’s Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, his hands passing lightly over Rana’s breast. He pulled her down onto the floor to join the group.
Pearse was talking to Daniel about his marriage again. He was telling him how his wife changed after she had the boys. “She got so depressed,” Pearse said.
“Oh, but that’s normal,” Daniel said.
“No, not this,” Pearse said. “She wasn’t interested in sex, she wasn’t interested in anything.”
“Did she breast-feed?” Rana asked.
“Yes,” Pearse said.
“That was her mistake,” Rana said. “I would never share my breasts with the children. They belong to my husband.” Pearse and Daniel exchanged looks.
“How about doing it in new surroundings,” Daniel suggested. Pearse had talked to him at length about his marriage troubles, so Daniel knew the problem was current. “How about the Brooklyn Bridge?”
“Tell the truth Daniel,” Rana said. “Where have you done it that’s so unusual?”
“On the roof, in a broom closet, underneath a flight of stairs, and in the elevator,” Daniel said succinctly.
“I grew up in Oklahoma,” Pearse said. “We never did anything like that.”
Daniel said, “It’s Rana’s turn.”
“Too complicated,” Rana said, and looked around for her drink. She tried to get up but Jason held her arm.
“Tell us,” he said.
“I was sitting by a stream. Our cow had just given birth, and this boy who worked for my father threw the placenta against the fence. ”
Daniel began to howl. “Daniel,” Pearse scolded. He thought this might be the pure feeling he was looking for.
“Can’t you see she’s putting you on Pearse,” Daniel said.
“That’s bad for the cow,” Jason said. “You’re supposed to let the cow eat the placenta after she gives birth. She needs to recoup the iron and vitamins.”
Daniel doubled over on the carpet and tried to get his breath. “So let her finish,” Pearse said. “She didn’t finish.” They waited for Rana to continue.
“Oh, that’s all,” she said. “He threw the placenta against the fence and we made love. That’s all.”
“That’s all?” Pearse said.
“I feel sick,” Daniel said, and joined Edward on the velvet couch in the front of the room.
Jason helped Rana up and led her over to the fireplace, where they lay down together. She was cold, so she took Jason’s suit jacket off the back of Vanessa’s chair to put on. Vanessa and Evelyn shifted forward together so Rana could pull the jacket loose.
“I think the girls have a thing going,” Rana whispered to Jason, but he had his hands covering his face and his chest was heaving. “What is it?” Rana said. She tried to pry his hands loose, but he was too strong for her. “What?” She wiped the tears off his temples with the back of her hand.
“My wife hasn’t slept with me in three years.”
“Now, now,” Rana said. “It’s the last night.” Then she said, “What about where you’ve done it. You didn’t say.”
“I don’t want to,” he said. “It cheapens it.”
Edward repacked his pipe and watched Daniel watch Jason. “What happened over there?” Edward said. “Was there a fight?”
“Oh no, nothing like that,” Daniel said. “Just some boasting. Why?”
“Because Jason’s crying and Pearse is over there sulking in his drink.”
Daniel turned to locate Pearse. Left alone, he had climbed up onto the swooning couch, and sat there looking down into the bottom of his gin glass. “It’s the last night,” Daniel said.
“Tomorrow we face our wives, husbands and children.”
“The children, that’s different,” Edward said.
Daniel looked at Evelyn and Vanessa. “So what have you three been talking about?” He remembered Vanessa’s policy of total honesty and wondered how she would explain Evelyn to her husband.
“Arrangements,” Edward said, lighting his pipe.
Rana stood up and wrapped the sides of Jason’s suit jacket around her. “Don’t go,” Jason said to her. “Dance with me.”
“Dance with me hell,” she said. “Look at you.” She turned to the others and said, “We can see each other again if we want to. Why is this like a farewell?”
Daniel shrugged. “Look at Pearse,” he said, nodding his head toward the man sitting on the swooning couch, his gin glass held with both hands between his legs, his head thrown back in an attitude of anguish.
“Pearse!” Rana said. She marched over to him, sat down on the floor between his legs, took his drink out of his hands and set it down out of reach. She tapped on his knee with her long fingernails. “Darling,” she said.
Pearse lifted his head off the wall and looked down at her. “I think we should all sleep together tonight,” he said. “In one enormous bed like children.”
“Come join the group Pearse,” Rana said. She stood up and held out her hand to him.
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t bear it.”
Daniel turned the music on and danced around Vanessa and Evelyn. Edward watched, taking long draws on his pipe. Jason stood up and monopolized Vanessa, holding her tight against him and kissing her. Daniel and Evelyn danced together.
Pearse led Rana lead him over to the fireplace. They lay down there together. “I think we should all sleep here together tonight,” Pearse said to the dancers. “After all, it’s the last night.”
They nodded their heads. When each of them became too tired or too despondent, they lay down by the fireplace with Pearse and Rana. By the time the music stopped they were all asleep there, heads nestled in stomachs, legs thrown over hips, arms around waists, faces cradled in shoulders.
Pearse woke up at dawn. He looked around him. Some time during the night Edward had climbed on the velvet couch and curled up there away from the others. The traitor, Pearse thought. Daniel slept apart from Vanessa and Evelyn, who were so entangled Pearse could not make out whose limbs were whose. Jason and Rana were gone.
“I knew it,” Pearse said. He had to go home that day and face his wife. Pearse went to Jason’s room, opened the door without knocking, took off his clothes and got in bed next to Rana.
“Who is it?” Rana said, half asleep. “Who’s there?”
“It’s Pearse,” Jason said, rolling over and embracing them both with his all-encompassing arm.
Rana put her hands on Pearse’s waist and pulled him toward her. “I can’t,” he said.
“Let’s,” she said. “Jason won’t mind.”
“I can’t betray my wife anymore,” he said. “Can’t we just lie here like children?”
By eight that morning they had all gone to their respective rooms to shower, dress, pack and think about their homecomings. By nine they were all seated at the breakfast table. Rana said, “I have to make an announcement.” They all stopped eating and listened. “That boy I told you about, the one by the stream?” Rana said. She put down her fork. They nodded eagerly. “Well, he did throw the placenta against the fence, but I didn’t make love with him.”
Daniel started laughing. Vanessa and Evelyn looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Jason shook his head.
“You didn’t make love with him?” Pearse said, incredulous. He couldn’t stand it.
“I’m sorry,” Rana said. “I had to tell you.”
“You lied to us,” Pearse said. “You made it sound so touching.”
“I said I was sorry,” Rana said.
The rest of them went back to their breakfasts. Pearse threw his linen napkin on the table, kicked his chair out from underneath him and stormed out of the room.
“Pearse, please,” Rana said.
“I hate compromise,” Pearse said as he shut the door behind him.
“What’s bugging him?” Jason said. “He had as good a time as any of us.” He shot a glance at Rana.
“It’s the last day,” Daniel explained. He went out to look for Pearse.
Daniel found Pearse leaning against his car, kicking the dirt with his boot. “Come back inside and eat your breakfast,” Daniel said.
“I can’t,” Pearse said. “I’m wretched.” He pulled at his hair.
“Your wife won’t leave you,” Daniel said.
“How do you know?” Pearse said.
“I know,” Daniel said. “Come inside.”
Pearse looked up at the dining room window. They were all huddled there, watching.
“We’re all wretched and disgusting,” Pearse said.
“Rana was trying to be straight with you,” Daniel said. “Trying it out before she goes home.
Maybe for the first time. It meant a lot to her.”
Pearse laced his arms across his chest. He shook his head. Now he knew how his son Alex felt when the boy resisted.
“You’ll do it again,” Daniel said.
“Never,” Pearse said, drawing back in horror. “I’ll never cheat her on her again.”
Daniel held out his hand to Pearse. “For the last time,” he said. “Come eat with us.”
But Pearse refused. As he watched Daniel walk back to the dining room Pearse thought, If my wife does leave me, I hope she doesn’t take the children. Then he wondered how he could possibly go on when the boys had grown up and moved away. He didn’t know what he would do.